To read my original essay, please click here.
This past Saturday, I discussed the aesthetic ideas and artistic control of Alfred Hitchcock in the latest installment of One Day University. Read more…
Henry James once said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.” Not bad, but I would say “summer reading.” Each June, when the school year ends and the days lengthen, I start to collect my friends for the warm months ahead. It’s a time of hope and passionate resolutions: Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma in the original French, that Yale Younger Poets winner, the cascading chapters of Middlemarch, a tennis biography, something on the Founding Fathers. I swear to myself that I will get through it all; this year will be different.
Of course, by the end of August, I will have only finished a fraction of these pages. Read and unread, the pile rests on my living room table all summer, the perfect backdrop for the season. We can daydream and make big unrealizable plans when it’s cold and dark out – but much better to do so on a lazy afternoon when it’s too hot to bother with anything else.
There’s no rhyme or reason to what I read, randomness is all. But there are a few principles:
• never confuse your summer reading with the books that you’re supposed to read, either for work or self-edification.
• always reread something you love (this summer, it’s Boccaccio and his “gracious ladies“).
• never read just one book at a time; keep that pile high.
• always accept that some books are just too long, too difficult, and too complicated for you ever to finish, unless you live to be 101 (or, in the case of Middlemarch, 121).
If there’s anything I love as much as reading books in summer, it’s buying them. In the town I grew up in, Westerly, Rhode Island, the independent bookstore Other Tiger (inspired by the Borges poem) is downtown just a few minutes drive from the beach house I rent each August to visit family. Unlike the thriving tourist economy on the coast, the downtown area is much quieter, with family-run businesses and cozy restaurants lining its handsome streets. A section of the bookshop is dedicated to local and state history, Rhode Island cartoons and trivia games, the sagas of Westerly’s immigrant families and granite quarries. It’s a space of conservation, dedicated to preserving the stories of the world I grew up in and all the memories attached to it.
My town has changed a lot over the years. A Walmart now stands on Route 1 near the beaches, its massive parking lot looming like a bunker that separates the rest of the town from the sand and sea. As in so many other American towns, the mills and factories have disappeared; small enterprises struggle to remain competitive. My childhood street used to have a few houses, I knew all of my neighbors. Now my mom’s home is surrounded by anonymous duplexes and apartment buildings, the woods paved over and filled with a parade of cars, vans, and trucks, music blaring.
No matter how different Westerly is, when I go back to the Other Tiger I feel like it’s still summer, there’s still the beach and glorious coast, and there will always be too many books in my pile. I used to think that summer was about the books I read. It’s actually more about the ones I didn’t or will never finish. After all, I’m sure I’ve changed as much as my town. What better way to mark these changes, even try to understand them, than with a never-ending reading list?
There are many words in Italian that defy translation: bella figura, simpatico, and my favorite, sprezzatura. The Oxford New American Dictionary will tell you that it means “studied carelessness,” but that’s only a small part of it. What the word actually suggests is a truly Italian approach to the fine art of living—at least as it was practiced several hundred years ago.
Sprezzatura may be difficult for us to understand today. William Deresiewicz has described our “virtually exhausted” American way of life, a time of nonstop and hyperconnected labor, with little boundary between the office and the home. “We’re in a panic as a nation,” Deresiewicz writes, “that we don’t work hard enough, and blame this iniquity for our ‘decline.’ ”
They saw things differently in the Renaissance. The key then was to show people how hard you were not working, to effect an air of nonchalance. This was a sign that you were a cool, capable customer. A gentleman never sweats under pressure.
The book that sums up this practical philosophy is Baldesarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). Part of the Duke of Urbino’s inner circle, Castiglione offers courtiers advice on such matters as the art of seduction, the games one should and should not play, and the nature of love. Most famously, he advocated sprezzatura, a way of acting that “conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought” (trans. G. Bull).
Castiglione was friends with one of the greatest painters of his age: Raphael. His legendary portrait of Castiglione brings the words and ideas of The Book of the Courtier to life.
The eyes are warm and welcoming: the courtier’s signal that he is ready to charm and serve. The openness of expression stands in stark contrast to much Renaissance portraiture, which often emphasized a subject’s nobility and majesty through impenetrable even haughty gazes (I described one of these lofty portraits as “hieratic,” highly formal and stylized, in my essay “Faces of Florence“).
Raphael’s portrait radiates poise and grace: the clothes are nice but not too nice (a courtier never draws attention to himself); the hands are peacefully folded (he always radiates calm); the head is turned toward us, awaiting the prince’s command (but in an inviting, not demanding way). Overall, the effect is what Joseph Epstein describes as “the art of artlessness“—the sprezzatura that reveals the ideal courtier’s effortless savor faire.